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J Virol. 2009 December; 83(24): 12657–12658.
Published online 2009 October 7. doi:  10.1128/JVI.02038-09
PMCID: PMC2786838

Riccardo (Rico) Wittek (1944-2008) [down-pointing small open triangle]


Riccardo (Rico) Wittek died 26 September 2008 in Switzerland. Rico was well known for his work on the molecular biology of poxviruses and for his work with the World Health Organization on biosafety that led to international guidelines for work with dangerous infectious agents. His colleagues Erwin G. Van Meir, Daniel Lavanchy, and Bernard Moss have written Rico's memorial.

Lynn W. Enquist

Editor in Chief, Journal of Virology


Already one year ago, on 26 September 2008, Riccardo Wittek died from sudden heart failure at age 64 while hiking in his beloved Turtmann Valley (Valais), Switzerland, where he was enjoying early retirement. He was well known in the virology community for his discoveries on the structure and biology of poxviruses, which still have an impact on the field today, and for his work in biosafety with the World Health Organization (WHO), which helped set international guidelines for work with dangerous organisms such as smallpox virus.

The son of a Swiss engineer of Czech origin, he was born on 26 April 1944 in Davos, a ski resort and gathering place for the World Economic Forum. He grew up near the Rhine River and, beginning at age 8, experienced 4 years in New Zealand, where his father was involved in the construction of a dam. He obtained a Diploma in Zoology in 1971 at the University of Zurich and started graduate studies at the Institute of Virology of the Animal Hospital in Zurich, where he met Suzanne Kubly; he and Suzy married in 1972. Under the mentorship of Robert Wyler, he made important discoveries on the organization of the poxvirus genome, and he graduated in 1976.

In 1978, after the birth of his oldest daughter, the family moved to the United States. Rico joined the laboratory of Bernie Moss at the National Institutes of Health as a postdoctoral fellow. It was a very exciting time, because the strict regulations imposed on recombinant DNA research had just been lifted. Rico was the first to clone segments of poxvirus DNA, and he described the inverted tandem repeat organization of the viral genome (7-9). These discoveries led to a revolution in our understanding of the structure and expression of the poxvirus genome and made possible a new approach to recombinant vaccines against a variety of diseases. Rico was an indefatigable researcher and showed little concern for burning his eyes with the UV lamp while looking at ethidium bromide-stained DNA fragments of the poxvirus genome. He was technically skilled and gained applause at laboratory meetings for the high resolution of his gel electrophoreses using self-made gel apparatuses.

During a visit to the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC, Rico viewed the national collection of bonsais, which awakened a passion that would accompany him for the rest of his life. Growing and shaping bonsais became his hobby, and they thrived at his home.

In 1980, the family returned to Zurich, and in 1981, Rico became Assistant Professor at the University of Lausanne in the Institute for Animal Biology. The laboratory had an incredible bay window with spectacular views of Lake Geneva and the Alps, the beauty of nature being a recurrent theme in his life. His laboratory focused on the molecular biology of poxviruses, making important contributions on viral gene regulation. A highlight of this period was the discovery that the mRNAs encoding late viral proteins had a unique 5′ leader sequence, which was not encoded in the genome and was constituted of a poly(A) sequence (1). The role of these structures remained elusive until a recent study demonstrated their importance in favoring the translation of viral mRNAs (3). Those of us who had the privilege of training with Rico could appreciate his intelligence, which transpired in the sparkle of his eyes or his intense gaze. He had a passion for science, pondered every word in a manuscript, taught us careful experimentation and critical thinking, and enjoyed a good laugh. His sense of humor would come out when he played one of his favorite tricks to shorten the visits of sale representatives: talking to them while manipulating radioactive material next to a screeching Geiger counter, or positioning his cigarette on a beaker adjacent to a dripping squirt bottle of ethanol. He had a profound disregard for cars and would slowly drive, in a tiny car, the 5 miles of countryside roads from his home to work. He once ignored the red oil light on his dashboard till the engine froze and enjoyed telling that story.

He was an active member of the virology community and participated in the organization of the International Poxvirus and Iridovirus Conference. He authored over 60 articles on poxviruses and a textbook on orthopoxviruses (2). His colleagues enjoyed his humorous spirit, his calm, down-to-earth yet joyful personality, and his critical evaluation of science. From 1992 to 1996, he served as a member of the WHO steering committee on new vaccination approaches. In 1995, he became the president of the Swiss Interdisciplinary Committee for Biosafety in Research and Technology, a politically charged position from which he resigned in 2001 in protest of the refusal of the Swiss government to allow field tests of genetically modified crops, a blow to Swiss biotechnology (6). He continued his biosafety work as an adviser to WHO, helping to define the agenda and limits for conducting research on the eradicated smallpox disease, an activity that put him at the crossroads of research, public health, and politics. He set up the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, an international committee of 16 of the world's leading poxvirologists which reported directly to the WHO Director General, who then issued a report to the World Health Assembly (4; see interview in reference 5). In this function, Rico defined world policy on variola research and contributed to the WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual (10) and to Public Health Response to Biological and Chemical Weapons: WHO Guidance (11). He also served on the Executive Committee of the Swiss Society for Microbiology from 1993 and became its president in 2006.

His virology course was highly rated by the students. He would start his class by writing on the blackboard the year of his planned retirement. He would apologize to the students, saying he really did not like to teach and was looking forward to that date, yet teaching was an activity he maintained even after taking early retirement in September 2006 at age 62. He bought and hand-renovated a Swiss chalet in Unterems (Valais), a place where he enjoyed his beloved mountains, walks with his daughters, and cultivating his bonsais. He continued part-time consulting for WHO, where his advice in the field of orthopoxviruses continued to be appreciated until his death.

He is survived by his wife, Suzy, and daughters, Nadja and Nina, who kindly provided information for this memorial. He was taken away much too early for us, his family, friends, and colleagues. He leaves us a strong scientific legacy, and his memory will remain in our hearts.

Figure 1
Riccardo (Rico) Wittek 1944-2008 (Photograph courtesy of the University of Lausanne)


[down-pointing small open triangle]Published ahead of print on 7 October 2009.


1. Bertholet, C., E. G. Van Meir, B. ten Heggeler-Bordier, and R. Wittek. 1987. Vaccinia virus produces late mRNAs by discontinuous synthesis. Cell 50:153-162. [PubMed]
2. Fenner, F., R. Wittek, and K. R. Dumbell. 1989. The orthopoxviruses, p. 439. Academic Press, New York, NY.
3. Shirokikh, N. E., and A. S. Spirin. 2008. Poly(A) leader of eukaryotic mRNA bypasses the dependence of translation on initiation factors. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105:10738-10743. [PubMed]
4. Tucker, J. B., and S. M. Okutani. 2006. Global governance of “contentious” science: the case of the WHO's oversight of small pox virus research, report no. 18. Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Stockholm, Sweden.
5. Vogel, G. 2004. Infectious diseases: WHO gives a cautious green light to smallpox experiments. Science 306:1270-1271. [PubMed]
6. Weiss, G. 2001. Swiss biotech. Government shoots down GM plant trials. Science 294:2067-2069. [PubMed]
7. Wittek, R., J. A. Cooper, E. Barbosa, and B. Moss. 1980. Expression of the vaccinia virus genome: analysis and mapping of mRNAs encoded within the inverted terminal repetition. Cell 21:487-493. [PubMed]
8. Wittek, R., and B. Moss. 1980. Tandem repeats within the inverted terminal repetition of vaccinia virus DNA. Cell 21:277-284. [PubMed]
9. Wittek, R., E. Barbosa, J. A. Cooper, C. F. Garon, H. Chan, and B. Moss. 1980. Inverted terminal repetition in vaccinia virus DNA encodes early mRNAs. Nature 285:21-25. [PubMed]
10. World Health Organization. 2003. Laboratory biosafety manual, 2nd ed. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
11. World Health Organization. 2004. Public health response to biological and chemical weapons: WHO guidance, 2nd ed. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

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